New York

Moshe Safdie

The Jewish Museum is presenting “For Everyone A Garden,” an exhibition of the work of architect Moshe Safdie. We are shown documentation of Safdie’s best-known work from Habitat ’67 and recent work by means of photographs, drawings, writings, and architectural models — among them Habitat ’67; Habitat, Puerto Rico; Habitat, New York; Western Wall Square, Jerusalem; The Paris Cultural Center; and Cold-spring, Baltimore. Also shown are three films on Safdie and his work, and a slide presentation in a five-eighths-size modular unit for the controversial San Francisco State College Union.

As an architect, Safdie does not plan buildings, but designs systems. His syntax is superb, his semantics clear. He has always taken into consideration the people who are to live in his structures. Consequently he has drawn up a bill of rights outlining those qualities essential to them as individuals, as members of a community, and that each of their dwellings must possess. There is concession here in that the loner may relate to his neighbor by proximity, never by invasion of privacy.

Aside from their importance as humane answers to the indifference of contemporary architecture, Safdie’s concepts and projects function as metaphors. If we take a grammatical system, we find that there are three basic elements to it—the noun, the verb, and the adjective. True to this form (whether by accident or by design) Safdie has paralleled this system with the modular unit (noun), the connective structure (verb), and the garden, etc. (adjectives). Within this grammar there is also the semantic; each dwelling suits its inhabitants’ needs.

Traces of the metaphor may be seen in his choice of project names. “Habitat” is the Latin for the third person singular present for “he, she, or it inhabits or dwells”—faithful to his essential system the borrowing from Latin is lucidly correct, Latin being a language that functions through declension (changing endings of words to signify changes of meaning and function, thereby excluding the need for excess verbiage).

This parallel is clear when we consider the Western Wall Square, Jerusalem project. The plaza surrounds the wall to which visitors flock daily. Safdie has said of it: “The problem of the Western Wall Square is how to create a place where ten people can pray, three thousand can celebrate and fifty thousand can demonstrate . . . my proposals have taken an amphitheater form.”

His choice of words and site is telling. In an amphitheater the aim is toward communication by transmission of sentences and orations (grammatic and semantic structures). At the wall people come to pray—to make statements to God and to themselves. Their sentences are surrounded by physical ones; the architectural structures (nouns), the plaza leading to it (verb), and the wall (the essential and only adjective needed to make this place unique).

Safdie’s metaphor would seem unrelated to his task, but through it he has created an eloquent language. But at times his language becomes florid—e.g., the preliminary model for Habitat. The final truncated version built in Montreal is more concise and clear while the former is more poetic and symbolic—an ideal.

José Matos